Lotus CEO discusses challenges of networked world

The IT industry talks a lot about the business impact of the Internet, but it should also keep an eye on the social and cultural significance of a networked world, according to Jeff Papows, president and CEO of Lotus Development Corp.

Papows was speaking in Toronto promoting his new book, Enterprise.com: Market Leadership in the Information Age.

When discussing the social benefits of what he calls the era of the “virtual office” he told the audience at Toronto’s National Club that one of the most interesting projects Lotus has been involved in over the last year was establishing a global network for the treatment of HIV patients.

“We now have hundreds of thousands of people infected with this horrible disease connected via a Notes and Domino network,” he said. “And as their world closes in and they become more and more bedridden, access to a network to provide that kind of common community is their window to the world. So this is not purely about business opportunities.”

But with these possible social benefits comes a responsibility for IT leaders, he said, to deal with challenges that will affect social, cultural and business worlds.

“First of all, we as an industry can’t forget about the discord between the availability of technology and human limits,” he said.

The IT industry, he explained, has a tendency to create bloated and overcomplicated products, to a degree where “if we’re not very careful, we’re going to see a backlash.

“If we think about technology being distributed to a broader and broader audience in an increasingly networked environment, we have to be much more careful than we’ve been historically.”

He explained that Lotus is spending 800,000 hours this year on a usability testing labs to address this.

He also emphasized what he called the failure of standards in the IT industry. “Our track record as an industry is abysmal,” he said. “Our own economic interests, our own parochialism, the penchant of the major players in this business to jam customers between our food fights has the respective opportunity of bringing all the wonders of the social cultural and business impact of this new networked business era to a screeching halt.”

He said the ironic thing is that what created the landscape of today – the boom of the Internet – was actually standards. He said the Internet itself has been around for 30 years, but it didn’t explode until a few years ago, because of the graphical user interface layer and the advent of a dial-tone that could be dealt with consistently because of standard document formats and standard on-the-wire protocols.

He also warned that government intervention could be a major issue.

He said there is a paradox in the U.S., with a president and administration that is forward-looking, in terms of things like lack of Internet taxation and intellectual property right protection, and backward looking, in terms of its policies on privacy and protection.

“I’m talking about the lack of our ability to export encryption strengths that are meaningful in business terms,” he said.

He said he has been involved in meetings at the White House on this issue for two years now, an experience he said was frustrating.

“Any 16-year-old can sit on the Internet any place in the U.S. and go to the Entrust site in Canada and download a 128-bit encryption algorithm,” he said. “Legally, to be arguing about whether a product like Notes on a ThinkPad ought to be in the same category as cruise missiles for export purposes is truly insane.”

He called today’s Internet landscape “the cyberversion of the Wild West,” and said no government has figured out a pragmatic way to deal with it yet.

“So we’ve got an incredible opportunity in front of us, and I really think it does require you to step back and look at the broader picture.”

He said part of what inspired him to write this book was his own sense of frustration with the enormity of what’s going on.

“We are truly, in my mind, dealing with a quantum leap in the way civilization works.”